Democracy can’t be imposed

By Karim Raslan, The Star

For democracy to work, there has to be a media that is free and fair as well as counter-veiling institutions: NGOs and law courts that are objective and above the fray.

IT’S no secret I have strong views. However, I’m a tukang cerita (story-teller) and not a politician, so arguing face-to-face is something I don’t enjoy, which is why I was wondering – last week – what I was doing standing in front of a full hall of Hong Kongers debating democracy, or to be exact arguing in support of the motion “The World needs more Democracy, not less.”

When I first received the invitation from the group, Intelligence Squared Asia, some months ago, I remember thinking: “Yeah, why not? I haven’t been to Hong Kong for a while.”

However, as I stepped onto the podium and took my place alongside practised polemicists such as the London Times’ David Aaronovitch, BBC’s Humphrey Hawksley and Beijing University’s Professor Pan Wei, I knew I’d made a mistake.

For what it’s worth, maybe it’s because of the fact that I’m a South-East Asian, compromise (or muafakat), is just too deeply ingrained in my psyche.

For example, I can’t bear winning if the losing party is left without his or her dignity – in fact, I’d rather concede defeat.

Nonetheless, the wave of popular demonstrations rippling through the Middle East and the uncertain outcome in Cairo (the debate took place last week) made the debate all the more intense.

Moreover, for any China-watcher (and who isn’t a China-watcher in Hong Kong?), the events in Tahrir Square evoked painful memories of the 1989 military suppression of the students in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

So anyhow, let me tell you about my argument.

First off, at least for me, the word “democracy” isn’t just about elections.

When people invoke “democracy,” they mean much more.

They mean freedom, prosperity, good governance, social justice and peace – in fact they’re calling for the ends for which democracy has evolved and developed: societal goods that everyone can enjoy because democracy in itself serves no purpose if it doesn’t enhance and strengthen these aspects of public life.

Indeed, democracy is merely the means to achieve a desired outcome.

At the same time, democracy in its narrowest sense isn’t just a simple process of calling elections and voting.

In order for the process to work, there needs to be a media that is free and fair as well as counter-veiling institutions – NGOs and law courts that are objective and above the fray.

It’s also important that there should be a 50:50 chance that the present bunch in government can be thrown out of office: otherwise why bother?

Elections that rubber-stamp the status quo are suspect at best and a sham at worst.

Contrary to what former US President George Bush, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair (am I the only person that switches TV channels when the former British PM pops up with his sanctimonious rubbish?) and former US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfield may think, democracy cannot be imposed by external forces.

You can’t invade someone and thereby “free” them.

Such an idea is nonsensical.

Instead, democracy has to be organic, although it can be “seeded” from elsewhere.

Still, its evolution will depend on the local matrix of culture, religion, history and politics and while it may well be possible to exclude religion from democracy in an increasingly secular Europe, the same is not true of societies where faith plays a major role in public life – principally those in South-East Asia.

To deny this fact is to disregard reality.

Human nature further complicates the equation.

Men and women have shifting aspirations: in short we always want more, and democracy allows for this constant evolutionary process, responding and adapting to popular sentiment – something that dictators such as Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak found hard and indeed impossible to manage.

Interestingly, the drama in Egypt has drawn attention to Indonesia – an example of a majority Muslim nation that’s made the transition to democracy.

Of course, there’s also the prospect of Iran looming in the other much darker corner.

In Indonesia, democratisation has been fitful and at times painful, bloody and chaotic.

Indeed, the late President Abdurrahman Wahid’s pluralist and democratic convictions is part of the reason that the republic was able to make the transition.

While there’s no doubt that Indonesians are much better off now, the recent lynchings of Ahma­diyyah members is an indication of how much the country misses and needs leaders such as Gus Dur.

Pluralism and openness cannot be taken for granted.

It has to be guarded and fought for every step of the way.

In conclusion, the pro-democracy argument swept to victory in Hong Kong.

My fellow debater Aaronovitch, with his take-no-prisoner style, more than matched my self-effacing manner, so much so that by the end of the evening I was calling him the Ayatollah of democracy while I, in true South-East Asian style, was merely a wayward and cheeky tukang cerita.